The mystery behind the other is what makes human existence so tragic and yet beautiful. And it is the quest of the artist to deteriorate the idea of otherness and to bridge the gap between humans. Writer Jeffrey Eugenides attempts to delve fully into the mind of the other and is known for his ability to plunge headfirst into the lives, quite separate from his own, of the characters he portrays in his body of work.
Eugenides delivered this year’s William Gifford Lecture on Tuesday, Oct. 28. To start, Amitava Kumar, Professor of English on the Helen D. Lockwood Chair, introduced the speaker to a packed room.
Eugenides opened his lecture with a description of his idealized Vassar girl: “The Vassar girl was always dressed in a black turtleneck and capri pants and smoking cigarettes… Deep, dry, sarcastic, wonderful girls, either wildly sexual or subtly suicidal.” That being said, his audience in the Villard Room included Vassar students of all gender identities, faculty members, alumnae/i and Poughkeepsie-area residents.
After the lecture, students enrolled in the narrative writing course taught by English Prof. David Means were invited to dinner in the Alumnae House with the writer. “He put up with all of our writerly questions and sat in the Alumnae House’s library to talk with a few of us even after dinner had finished,” said Kate Finney ’17, who was lucky enough to attend the dinner following the lecture. “He seemed most excited to talk about his new work, which I found helpful as someone who’s trying to figure out how to write. It’s nice to see someone struggle in similar and different ways knowing that they’ve succeeded in what they’re doing. It makes everything look not quite so far away.”
As all William Gifford Lectures entail, Eugenides read excerpts from his body of work of his own choosing followed by a brief question and answer session. This year’s speaker read an excerpt from his most recent novel, “The Marriage Plot” (2011), which centers around uncertain Madeleine, her manic-depressive boyfriend Leonard and lovestruck Mitchell, who opts out of divinity school for a quasi-pilgrimage, as well as from current and unpublished writing projects.
“It’s not even fully-formed,” Eugenides said honestly, regarding this latter material that currently exists title-less and in its developing stage. “I promised I’d read something new and I looked around at what I was writing and all of it was not very good. But then there’s [this] little passage that glimmers like a nugget in a pound of dirt.”
Amid his success, Eugenides time and time again made himself vulnerable to his audience. “It is always so difficult to write a good short story—it’s impossible. Strange that it’s what we use to teach students, because it is essentially the hardest form to begin,” Eugenides told the crowded room. “I had never thought about it that way until I was in grad school and [they] visited us and said, ‘I think a novel is easier to write than a short story. It is easier, and more forgiving.’”
Following the reading, audience members got to interact with and pick the brain of Eugenides, which attendees found to be particularly enlightening. “One of the most interesting things that Eugenides said in the Q&A session after his talk was that short stories are the most difficult literary form to do well,” wrote Jeremy Burke ’15 in an emailed statement. “This is particularly interesting to me as someone who writes almost entirely short stories, because it seems like something I’d always felt but never had put into words. Or maybe just having a famous author say it made it feel more real.”
Eugenides’ presentation offered only a small taste of his body of work. His debut novel, 1993’s “The Virgin Suicides,” focuses on the lives (and deaths) of five sisters and is told in the first-person plural—a decidedly unusual perspective and narrative choice.
“Middlesex” is the memoir of Cal Stephanides, who struggles with their gender identity. Eugenides spent nine years working on his novel, and in 2003 his hard work came into fruition—”Middlesex” won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. “He won the Pulitzer for ‘Middlesex’. His debut novel, the one that came before it, ‘Virgin Suicides,’ is immensely popular. I think young people in particular see themselves in some of the characters he has portrayed. Issues of identity and sexuality are alive in ‘Middlesex,’” said Kumar. “I was very much interested in our students engaging in a conversation with him on those other things.”
Kumar finds Eugenides’ ability as a writer to be particularly valuable for English students and writers of all kinds to observe and emulate. He said, “I wanted my students to enter into the lives that he was portraying—young people, going out into the world, observing the world, taking things from the classroom, and fashioning them into narratives.”
Beyond Eugenides’ adeptness and skill, Kumar finds value in Eugenides’ constant reflection upon the art of writing itself. “Many people, when they write, are interested in the lives they are depicting but they’re not interested in the business of writing as much, and I think that’s another thing Eugenides does well,” Kumar said. “He writes about the struggle of what it is to be an artist, the struggle to earn a living, the struggle of why you are an artist or a writer [and] the struggle of keeping your relationships when you are a writer. All of these things are also of crucial importance to him.”
Those who attended the dinner were lucky enough to interact with Eugenides on a more personal and expansive level than the lecture itself offered.
“The three English professors at my table [at the dinner] agreed that Eugenides’ talk was one of the best of the many they’d attended,” stated Jamie Maher ’17 in an e-mail. “Eventually, the population dwindled and Eugenides came to our table and my remaining classmates followed (because, duh, he won a Pulitzer). Those who were left—a number of students, a donor/alum, and Eugenides—ended up hanging out in the library of the Alumnae House until about 10:30 p.m. He’s a super chill dude—you’d have to be to tolerate starstruck students for such an extended period of time. Please quote me on that.”
Eugenides’ humble attitude was inspiring to all. Burke continued, “I think anyone who’s spent a lot of time writing has experienced that—the feeling that what you’re doing is bad work and you should stop—and it’s good to know that, although that feeling doesn’t go away, you’re in good company, even when you feel like what you’re doing is awful. And sometimes, those things turn out to be Pulitzer Prize winning novels.”